Can we finally say the thing we have not said so far?
Last week, a white supremacist shot up a Sikh temple near Milwaukee, killing six people and wounding three. It is considered likely that the shooter mistook the Sikhs, whose men wear beards and turbans, for Muslims. The massacre came a few weeks after a characteristically baseless charge by Michele Bachmann and several other conservative legislators that a Muslim aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has ties to Islamic extremism.
The juxtaposition of those two events is emphatically not meant to suggest Bachmann somehow “caused” the Wisconsin rampage. No, the point is that we are looking for terror in all the wrong places. Or, perhaps more accurately, that we are not looking for it in all the right places.
In the almost 20 years since the first attack by Muslim extremists on the World Trade Center, the following things have happened: the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City leaves 168 dead and hundreds more injured; one person is killed, more than 100 wounded, in a bombing at the Olympics in Atlanta; seven people are arrested for plotting to attack U.S. military bases; Dr. Barnett Slepian is shot and killed in Amherst, N.Y.; five people die in a shooting spree near Pittsburgh; the FBI arrests a man who tried to buy ingredients for sarin, the deadly nerve gas, from an undercover agent; Dr. George Tiller is shot and killed in Wichita, Kan.; a man and his daughter are killed in their home in Arivaca, Ariz.; a man flies a small plane into a building in Austin, killing himself and one other. And now, this.
These incidents and dozens more comprise a list maintained by the Southern Poverty Law Center in a publication entitled “Terror From the Right: Plots, Conspiracies and Racist Rampages Since Oklahoma City.” What they all have in common is that they spring from motivations (i.e., opposition to taxation, government, immigrants, blacks, gays, abortion and Muslims) that more or less define modern, mainstream, conservatism. So yes, it is time to say the obvious thing no one seems to be saying:
America is under attack by right-wing terrorists.
And here, again, it is necessary to say what the point is not. Namely, it is not that conservatism equals terrorism. These criminals are fanatics, and fanaticism is restricted to no particular ideology. Ironically, that’s an argument to which conservatives often turn deaf ears when it is made on behalf of Muslims, but that doesn’t make it any less true — or applicable here.
That said, what’s telling is that we won’t even call this what it is. When the Symbionese Liberation Army and the Weather Underground were committing violence in the 1970s, we were not slow in decrying left-wing terrorism and requiring progressives to disown it. When al-Qaida kills and maims, we are not shy about branding it Islamic terrorism and requiring moderate Muslims to disown it.
For some reason, though, we are reluctant to call right-wing terror by name. And you can forget requiring conservatives to distance themselves from it.
Rather than see a pattern that grows more glaring every day, we see a series of discrete events — this individual tragedy here, that one there, regrettable certainly, but surely not suggestive of any larger picture.
Maybe this is because the perpetrators of these crimes are overwhelmingly white Christian men and thus, invisible in a nation where danger is routinely defined as Them, not Us. Maybe it’s because media have become cowed and self-censoring, reflexively flinching from that which might bring accusations of anti-conservative bias.
Either way, one wonders how we can confront what we won’t even name. These plots hatched in the fetid backwaters of conservative paranoia ought to be called what they are. The blood of victims demands an honest accounting.
We have given them a dishonest silence instead.
(Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)